National Arab American Heritage Month: Celebrating the Contributions of Arab Americans--Event Recap
By Ruqyah Sweidan/Arab America Contributing Writer
We have just concluded our final Arab America Heritage Month event. Hooray! Throughout this two-hour celebration, nineteen speakers expressed pride, solidarity, and appreciation for Arab American history and culture. For over a century, Arab Americans have made numerous contributions to virtually every aspect of American society: in medicine, law, business, education, technology, government, military service, and culture. There were also lively musical tributes and dance performances. This article will review the highlights of the commemorative event, the sponsors, and the community impact.
No, your eyes do not deceive you. The document above holds the signature of the president of the United States! President Biden responded to the Arab America Foundation’s invitation to take part in the celebration of heritage month. Although we were not fortunate enough for him to attend, he sent us a detailed letter of praise for the Arab American community. The State Department also recognizes April as the National Arab American Heritage Month.
Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (M-12)
The first guest is worthy of every honor. Congresswoman Dingell was the only person who attended our event in 2017 when the heritage month was first launched. Over 500 members of congress were invited, yet only Congresswoman Debbie Dingell from Michigan believed in us carrying a resolution from the House of Representatives. The honorable congresswoman expressed her support, recognition and encouragement for the greatness of the Arab American community.
Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has been an influential and forceful voice in Washington. She represents the 18th Congressional District of Texas, centered in Houston. Considered by many as the “Voice of Reason”, she is dedicated to upholding the Constitutional rights of all people. Thus, she has been a strong advocate against the “Muslim Ban” and equal treatment of all ethnic groups in America, including Americans of Arab descent.
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (M-13)
Rashida Tlaib, arguably one of the best-known Arab Americans, is also a veteran of the heritage month celebrations. Before she was in congress, she was a supportive and inspiring figure to Arab America. On Sunday, April 25th, like her colleagues, expressed her pride in being Arab American, her gratitude to the founders of the Arab America Foundation, and her support to activists in the Arab American community. In addition, she commended the community for its strength and fighting spirit. She concluded by saying that is how we Arab Americans have been able to achieve so much!
Dr. James Zogby
President of Arab American Institute (AAI), Dr. James Zogby is a hard-working advocate for our community for many years in the political arena and through legislative work on the Hill. It was truly quite moving to hear his story. In the beginning, Arab Americans were rejected as being their own ethnic group. It was quite a difficult road toward gaining recognition. Doors were shut in his face, and there was a great power struggle. Nevertheless, Arab Americans made leaps and bounds from their start point, but now they enjoy a more respected status that is well-known in the country. He added, despite our progress, we still have a long way to go.
Congresswoman Judy Chu was a fierce advocate against the Muslim ban and has been a great promoter of immigrant rights. Congresswoman Chu described very eloquently the importance of Arab Americans in the fabric of our great country. She recalls the essence of America as diverse, welcoming, and how it was founded for immigrants. Her words showed optimism for the continuation of Arab American visibility.
Our next guest was an Arab American who runs the leading organization here in Washington which promotes trade between the Arab World and the U.S. David Hamod is President & CEO of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce. Hamod was also a very eloquent speaker with a long history of activism. He recalled the time when he was invited by Arab America to attend the historic announcement of the initiation of National Heritage Month. He recognized then that a huge initiative has begun by Arab America that will impact the history of our existence in this host society.
Brenda Lawrence (MI-14)
Another supporter of our community work is U.S. Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence who represents the 14th Congressional district in Michigan. Congresswoman Lawrence has also been a major supporter of the Arab American community over the years. She discussed the contributions of Arab Americans in the United States, the state of Michigan, and her District. She said that continues to stand against hate crimes that are directed at the community. Finally, she gave her warmest congratulations to all who were celebrating National Arab American Heritage Month!
Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8)
Congressman Jamie Raskin of the State of Maryland has recognized the important contributions of Arab Americans to the ‘mosaic’ that is known as America. He clearly and simply explained how important multiculturalism is to the fabric of the country, especially, amidst the increases in hate crimes in certain communities. Raskin said he salutes the Arab American community for all the wonderful things they have done, and also reminded us that his door is always open.
Congresswoman Cori Bush (MO-1)
Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri wished Arab Americans a Happy National Arab American Heritage Month and she also sent her gratitude to the Arab America Foundation for inviting her to this special event. She then talked about the wonderful contributions and love that is expressed from the thriving St. Louis Arab American community and how she continues to serve all St. Louisans to “build a more equitable society full of joy.”
Dr. Scott Brabrand, Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools
Superintendent Dr. Scott Brabrand discussed how Fairfax County Public Schools is supporting its constituents which also includes the Arab American community; he wanted everyone to know that their voices are being heard while they’re trying to create a more equitable school system. He talked about how everyone’s identity and heritages should be appreciated within the school system. Brabrand added that they are addressing issues of hate and harassment head-on to prevent it from happening to Arab American students and other groups.
Brenda Wolff, President of Montgomery County School Board
The president of the school board of the largest county in Maryland, Honorable Brenda Bush, was also present. She expressed her commitment to keep the Arab American community in her county well understood and well served through quality classroom instruction, special events, and community engagement. She congratulated members of our community and assured them continued cooperation.
Lauren Montague, Executive Director, The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University
Director Lauren Montague delivered an educational and positive piece about the richness of Arab culture in universities. Arabs have, throughout history, contributed the most advancing and life-changing impacts to civilizations around the world. Each year, Director Montague, gets to welcome new students into this field to continue learning Arab history and culture. Through the center, Arab students also host and participate in numerous events and build a thriving, diverse community.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan
Governor Gretchen Whitmer wholeheartedly expressed her pleasure to commemorate and congratulate the community for Arab American Heritage Month. She discussed how Michigan has the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country and added that it’s the Arab American community is that makes her state so special. Whitmer talked about how Arab Americans came to the U.S. in search of political, economic, and religious freedom. Moreover, that Arab Americans have shared their rich culture with their fellow Michiganders, and that they represent model citizens, and all the wonderful contributions they have made to her state.
Mike Duggan, Mayor of Detroit
Mayor Mike Duggan talked about the various contributions that Arab Americans have made to the social and economic fabric of Detroit. He explained how many Arab Americans emigrated to Detroit in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to search for increased economic opportunities such as their work in the auto, retail, and manufacturing industries as well as the professions of law and medicine. Mayor Duggan discussed how Detroit’s strength is its diversity; he concluded by wishing our community a Happy Arab American Heritage Month.
London Breed, Mayor of San Francisco
Mayor London Breed of San Francisco, California talked about how in April we all come together to celebrate National Arab American Heritage Month. Additionally, she mentioned the numerous contributions that the community has made to San Francisco in many fields including the arts, culture, science, medicine, business owners, and civic leaders. Mayor Breed spotlighted the many Arab cultural and interfaith organizations that exist in San Francisco especially during the pandemic, and she also discussed how her city stands behind the community and works to prevent hate, discrimination, and harassment in all forms.
James Anzaldi, Mayor of Clifton, New Jersey
Mayor Jim Anzaldi compared what he heard from prior speakers to his own work when he was in the classroom and as the Mayor of Clifton, New Jersey by using the famous motto, E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one). Mayor Anzaldi talked about the special contributions that Arab Americans have made to his city of Clifton, NJ. He explained how Arab Americans have been there in Clifton since the very beginning (104 years), and he highlighted the cultural diversity seen in the city especially via its vibrant Arab food and restaurant scene there. Finally, he spotlighted the beautiful familial cultures of Arab Americans, and the need to love one another as well as compromising to support each other in this highly-diverse community.
Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) expressed how Arab Americans have contributed to the community of diversity known as the United States. She talked about the theme of ‘mosaic’ used to celebrate Arab American Heritage Month as well as the various cultures, faiths, and languages that make up the vibrant Arab American community. The AFT president mentioned how a multicultural community is always a work-in-progress, and that we should all respect our neighbors. Finally, Weingarten pointed to the fact that AFT’s members are committed to teaching tolerance, equity, and equality, now and forever.
Domingo Garcia, National President, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Domingo Garcia, the National President of LULAC commemorated Arab American Heritage Month by speaking about the importance of building coalitions and by supporting each other especially when hate and discrimination are aimed at both Arab Americans and Latinx Americans. He talked about each communities’ shared experiences including how LULAC protested against former President Donald Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim Ban,’ and how it is wrong to target certain groups because of their heritage, race, immigrant status, or religion. Finally, he mentioned the importance of mobilization by fighting for voting rights, electing officials who represent the community, and various initiatives that he plans to work on to present more economic opportunities for both Arab and Latin Americans.
Janelle Jalila Issis. Arab Folk Dancer
Janelle graced us with a majestic dance. She used a melodious rhythm to guide her graceful movements. The way she expresses her appreciation for the dance was emotional and joyous. Janelle’s dance folk dance is such a big part of her life and her identity. It establishes connections with others through her teaching. Janelle’s performance was captivating. She swayed her dance across the beautiful garden behind her as a symbol of Arab tranquility and dignity.
Michael Kahwajy-Hyland, Lebanese American Dabke Dancer Extraordinaire
We were moved, literally, by the moves of an outstanding Dabke performer, Michael Kahwajy-Hyland. His energy and passion were felt by us all. His agility and his art were clearly shown in the most energetic steps! Michael then spoke about the deep roots of Dabke. They persist across all forms of Dabke across the Arab cultures that practice it. It is community; it is in our blood; it is our history; and it is our joy. Watch him on the video and dance along!
Muath Edriss, Syrian Refugee American Vocalist, Oudist, and Zaffi Chanter
Finally, we enjoyed Muath’s exclusive Zaffi theme which he wrote just for this special occasion on Sunday, April 25, 2021. His passion ignited us to be joyful and move along with the music even though it was through a zoom camera! Muath showed his talent and ability to bring out the community feel of Arab music. We are still feeling the impact today. You are encouraged to check it out in the above video.
Special Guests: Massari and Elyanna
What more fitting way to conclude the event than with a harmonious singing duet! Massari and Elyanna sang “I See a Dream,” an anthem of hope, excitement, and celebration. Massari then spoke about his philanthropic campaign to sell his merchandise and donate the proceedings to those who are hungry in Lebanon. Elyanna also expressed her passion for singing and Palestinian culture. Those who saw and heard Massari and Elyanna were amazed and have had a lasting effect on their pride and hope for a bright future for Arab Americans and Arabs everywhere.
The event was a marvelous success. The diversity of the speakers, performers, and audience showed the vastness of the Arab American culture. The people in attendance showed their commitment to commemorating Arab contributions and celebrating the richness of Arab culture in America. The speakers and audience members came from different backgrounds but shared a love for helping Arab Americans to feel empowered. This month of April, and all Aprils to come, will be an opportunity for Arab Americans to get together and invite other Americans to partake in their celebrations of National Arab Americans Heritage Month!